WASHINGTON — Amid claims senior military officials altered reports to downplay the strength of Islamic State and al-Qaida's branch in Syria, the House Intelligence Committee's top lawmakers say they welcome whistleblowers from the intelligence community to step forward.
Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and Ranking Member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., weighed in following reports in The New York Times and the Daily Beast that the Defense Department's inspector general is investigating complaints that superiors skewed the reports.
Altered reports allegedly portrayed the terror groups as weaker than analysts believe they are, in keeping the administration's public line that the U.S. is winning the battle against the Islamic State and al-Nusra. These were allegedly Defense Intelligence Agency analysts working with US Central Command.
"I'm obviously very concerned about the politicization of intelligence, and it's long been a political football, that there have been accusations of the politicization of intelligence," Nunes said, speaking Thursday at the Intelligence & National Security Summit.
Though President Obama has repeatedly touted the weakened state of al-Qaida, Nunes said he "never viewed al-Qaida as on the run," a narrative he considers "good political rhetoric" to assuage war-weary Americans.
The Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., told Defense News the committee had been apprised of the matter before it became public, and that it has made a general inquiry to the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Burr said the committee speaks with whistleblowers but respects agencies' ongoing investigations. "From the standpoint of hearings, we would never consider doing something like that during an [inspector general's] investigation," he said.
Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters his committee is looking into the matter.
"It's very obvious ISIS is not losing, they are winning, and for them to say ISIS is losing, it's either bad information or they're cooking the books," said McCain, an ex officio member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
At Thursday's forum, moderator David Sanger of The New York Times drew parallels between the allegations and the Pentagon Papers, a report leaked in 1971 which revealed that the White House had misled the public regarding US intentions in Vietnam. The forum also touched on the modern impact of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden on the intelligence community.
Schiff said the intelligence committee has strived to provide avenues for the intelligence community to vent conflicts, short of leaking information to the public.
"We do need to make sure there is an avenue available for dissent and concerns over wrongdoing, or the politicization of intelligence," Schiff said.
The intelligence community has evolved to encourage dissenting opinions as part of its ethic.
"This is obviously not a perfect science, and the analysts can reach different conclusions," Schiff said.
Under a directive by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the 17 US intelligence agencies, analytical assessments "must not be distorted" by a particular audience, agenda or policy view.
The intelligence committee concluded in a 2008 report that the Bush administration had manipulated intelligence to support going to war with Iraq and misled the public about the relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. The Daily Beast reported that some of the analysts named by the complaint had served at Central Command for more than a decade and bared the scars of this period.